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Farmers’ market or grocery store? UNG professor explores complexities of food choices in new documentary
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A variety of produce is for sale at Shook's Family Farm's tent during the Gainesville Farmers Market in downtown Gainesville on Friday, June 14, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

Growing and selling food that doesn’t harm the environment isn’t as simple as omitting pesticides and setting up shop at a farmers’ market.

Benjamin Garner, assistant professor of management in the Mike Cottrell College of Business at the University of North Georgia, decided to explore the intricacy of local farming by tapping into one of the nation’s agricultural hot spots, Kansas.

In his new documentary, “Heartland Local Food,” Garner shines light on small-scale farmers, including people who sell products at a farmers’ market in Lawrence, Kansas. 

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Benjamin Garner, an assistant professor at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega, recently directed a documentary about the complexities of small-scale farming called, "Heartland Local Food."

He gathered the voices of Kansas residents who work in industrialized, urban and family farm settings to better understand the challenges of producing food.

“Doing the documentary puts more of the story into your heart,” Garner said. “You get to hear people's stories as opposed to a survey. You get to hear about people’s lives.”

Although Garner directed and wrote a documentary that embraces buying and consuming locally grown products, he said that isn’t his main focus. 

The next time someone makes a choice of purchasing local, organic or industrial farm-produced food, he encourages them to pause and think.

“It’s very easy to take sides and say that one group isn’t making moral choices,” Garner said. “The documentary shows that you have good people on both sides.”

The nearly 57-minute film is being distributed by the National Educational Telecommunications Association, which allows Public Broadcasting Service stations to show the documentary. Garner said “Heartland Local Food” has aired in 15 different stations across the country, including California, Kansas and Georgia.  

The UNG professor has also directed two other films including “Southern Vines: The Rebirth of Wine in Georgia” and “Glass-Bottled Milk: Saving the Iwig Family Dairy.”

Inspiration to create a documentary about local farming sparked while Garner studied abroad in Italy. He said he became enamored with the large markets selling olives, meat and cheese and sought a similar operation when he returned to the U.S.

While earning his doctorate in communication studies at the University of Kansas, Garner quickly became a devoted visitor of the Lawrence Farmers’ Market. He volunteered on the farmers’ market’s board of directors for two-and-a-half years, and knew that the 42-year-old operation could help offer a glimpse into the country’s local farming.

Garner shops locally when he can, but he said he understands why many people choose grocery stores over farmers’ markets, especially when the products are cheaper and conveniently available.

Garner said he enjoys purchasing food from local producers because they often make products he can’t find in a typical supermarket. 

“So here at the Gainesville farmers’ market you can get certain kinds of local honey or specific types of farm-raised bacon,” Garner said.  “And you can talk to the producer and ask questions. I also think local farms help educate people and kids about agriculture.”

Local farmers experience myriad challenges like unpredictable weather and pests, but Garner said one of the biggest hurdles they face involves gathering enough capital to start their farms and keep them running.

“There may be large equipment costs, costs of the initial purchase of land or rental,” he said. “And you have to purchase ahead of time the crop/seeds/animals and hope to make sales six months later. So there are a lot of business loans as well.”

Now, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said farmers’ normal method of distributing food has been disrupted. Because some cannot find an alternative place to sell their products, he said some farms are “literally throwing food away.” Others are able to donate to food banks.

When people watch “Heartland Local Food,” Garner said he hopes they are able to better grasp the complexities of the nation’s local food producers. 

“As one of the interviewees said well in the film, when you’re dealing with food systems, you’re dealing with multiple value systems,” Garner said. “At some point you have to choose between different values.”

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